Filmmaking Basics

How I Got Paid to Learn Filmmaking (and You Can Too!)

March 4, 2020

You can learn documentary filmmaking and get paid at the same time. I did it. And so can you.

It’s 7:30 in the morning, on a dull rainy day, and my students are bored out of their skulls.

They all look about two minutes away from falling asleep. It’s one of those cold rainy days near the end of term when my students have given up on learning English and just want the class to be over. 

I’m teaching a group of young professionals who get up at 5 am every day to go to ESL class before heading off to their corporate jobs in the capital of Ecuador. 

At this moment, on this grey day, I had a choice: keep talking about grammar or try something different. 

They were depressed because I’d just given them a listening activity that was so hard they’d all failed. It was time for a pep talk. I started telling a story about a former student who had gone from being at the bottom of his class to the very top by doing one thing: listening to American talk-radio. 

As I started telling this story, my students’ faces began to change.

Their drooping expressions lifted. Their dull eyes brightened. Their posture changed. I watched them come back to life like house plants that had just needed a splash of water.

That’s when it hit me: storytelling is your purpose. 

The words flashed in my mind. Neon, capital letters: TELL STORIES. Three years later, I bought a DSLR camera, and I started teaching myself filmmaking. I wanted to tell stories with moving images. When I first started out, I had no strategy. All I wanted was to learn.

Tell Stories to Learn Filmmaking

What happened next was incredible: I got paid to learn filmmaking. 

So how did I do it? 

It was a deceptively, simple three-step process. You could apply the same steps to learning any new skill. 

  1. Do 25 projects for free.
  2. Find your first paying client and start small.
  3. Take paid projects that stretch your skillset.

1. Learn filmmaking by doing your first 25 projects for free

The key to this step being successful is that you start and finish mini-projects.

Just shooting a bunch of footage that you never do anything with won’t get you anywhere. There will be no context to determine if your footage was successful or not. Sure, you can practice getting exposure and focus right. You can even practice framing. But filmmaking is all about telling a story. 

The toughest part of the craft is capturing the images that actually tell the story the way you want them to. List out as many project ideas as you can. Then start making them. Projects can be short and simple. 

When I was starting out, I did projects that varied from a Sock Puppet Christmas Music Video to my mother baking bread and my father playing the double bass. This was not high art. It was simple, basic, get-it-done storytelling.

Make random films about anyone and anything that’s around you. That’s the best way to practice!

Once you’ve finished 25 projects, you’re ready for your first small paid gig. 

But wait, why 25 projects? Honestly, when I came up with that number is was completely arbitrary. I figured 25 projects would get my skills to a place where I would be confident working with a client. And I wasn’t wrong.

2. Find your first paying client and start small

Within a year of buying my first DSLR camera, I had a paying client.

Don’t get me wrong, this project was a small, low-budget affair. I charged $500 for two sales videos. While I look at those videos now and cringe, they did what the client wanted. They captured her essence in a way that communicated the value of what she was offering.  

After reaching the magic number 25, I built a website to share my services.

I put up a portfolio of my best work. (Not all 25 videos, that’s for sure!) Then I sent out individual emails to every person I knew who I thought might want a video for their business at some point in the coming 12 months. No, not mass emails. That’s no way to get a client out of thin air. 

I also added a subscription gift to my website and started collecting emails. I sent out video marketing and DIY video tips every month. 

From there, my clients all came relatively by accident.

As an introvert who hates chit chat, I avoided networking and just did online marketing. From those efforts and some other strange accidents, I kept getting clients. I also created an account on UpWork.com and got editing clients through that platform.

Each job turned out to be more complicated than the one before. And though I was often terrified, I kept saying yes.

3. Take paid projects that stretch your skillset

The only way to keep improving your filmmaking skills is to continuously set the bar higher and higher.

You do this by taking on projects that require skills you don’t yet possess. I’m not suggesting you just say yes without a thought. Make sure you can learn the skill set in the time required. Then say yes. Through this process, I learned how to do stop motion filmmaking, product videos, high key lighting, text animation, voice-overs, and how to use a gimbal.

Before I signed the contract on any new job that stretched my skill set, I would run a test of the new skill.

I’d see what results I could get with my current technology and without doing any research. If I could get halfway there, I knew that with research and the right technology or tools, I could deliver the results the clients were looking for. 

Didn’t the clients care that you were still learning?

Not a single client has ever brought up my filmmaking education or asked about my experience level.

The proof is in the portfolio and whether you incite trust. The beauty of digital marketing is that you can tell your story on your website and filter out most pain-in-the-butt clients. My website’s About Page has always clearly (and proudly) stated that I’m a self-taught filmmaker and video producer. My background is in the theatre, which is why I’m obsessed with storytelling, lighting, set design, and efficient production standards. That, along with a good portfolio and testimonials, is all your clients need to see.

In fact, because hiring a video production company is typically so expensive, clients usually feel lucky to have found someone who is good, who cares about the project, and who will do it for a price they can afford. 

A typical story-based brand video costs $10,000.

But the vast majority of small businesses do not have a marketing budget that allows them to invest that sum. So they’re either stuck doing it DIY or not doing it at all. 

Until they find you.

Learn Filmmaking without Debt

The best way to learn filmmaking without going into debt is to earn the income you need to keep investing in gear by working with paid clients.

First, do 25 gigs for free, so you can get your skills to a basic working level. Then find your first small paid job. From there, you can continue to increase your rates as your skill level increases. 

Keep your day job and continue to invest your filmmaking income into gear and online courses until you’re ready to go full-time.

Finally, don’t be afraid of gigs that stretch your skill level by about 10%. Figure out whether you think you can deliver by running a basic test. Then go ahead and say yes to the project. 

Just Tell Stories

The typical film student pays $25,000 to $50,000 to get their filmmaking education.

They learn how to make movies in teams. They build industry connections. Then they go to work as Production Assistants on big movie sets. They move their way up through the ranks.

You could do that. Lots of people do. 

FACT: nobody starts out using a camera that looks like this. Everyone starts out with tiny cheap cameras that allow them to practice. So don’t let your lack of gear stop you!

Or you could get paid to learn filmmaking on the job by practicing and stretching your skillset. You won’t go into debt. And you’ll end up with all the gear you need to tell any online story you want. 

Storytelling is an art that you learn by doing. Not by watching. Sure, you can pull scripts apart. You can analyze videos and films. But you get better by doing it. 

Only you know what route will work best for you. 

Today’s To Do

Ask yourself one question: CAN I DO THIS?

If the answer is yes, then it’s time to get started.
List out all the things you could make a micro film
about and start with one of them.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Colette Nichol. I’m a story strategist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur based out of rainy Vancouver. Obsessed with personal development, solo filmmaking, and marketing, you can often find me attempting to read ten books at the same time. Join the inbox party: take my free mini-course and start building your filmmaking skillset.

I'm Colette, here to give you a filmmaking skillset boost! 

Welcome! I’m a story strategist, filmmaker, and teacher based out of rainy Vancouver, Canada. My mission is to give you the tools and tactics you need to pursue your filmmaking dreams, so you can start making films this year! No more waiting for the right time.  Join the inbox party: take my free mini-course and start building your filmmaking skillset.


ahoy there!